Friday, April 19, 2013

The Critical Mom's Guide to Basic Literacy

Are you a student?  Majoring in English, or Humanities, or History, or Cultural Studies?  Or maybe just a person who likes to read and wants to understand Western culture? 

Then you need these three things:

(1) The King James Bible

(2) Any good handbook of Greek and Roman Mythology; here are some favorites of mine:

D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths

If you want a quick fix, with pictures, this is a good one, but it is intended for children, so all the really gruesome stuff is toned down.  

Edith Hamilton's Mythology

Bullfinch's Mythology

The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology

You can get a used copy, as of this writing, for $6.26.  Forget the new, which is over $200. 

You can even take this free online course, complete with videos:

(3) Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  One of the two books everybody owned when nobody could afford to buy books.

The influence of Pilgrim's Progress is just all over the place.  Subscribe to Vanity Fair?  Well, you wouldn't if John Bunyan hadn't invented that phrase as a place devoted to show-offy frivolous stuff.   Ever read Little Women--incidentally a favorite book of both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush?  It starts with the four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, reminiscing about playing Pilgrim's Progress when they were little girls.  If you have no sense of Pilgrim's Progress you'll be bored and also miss the philosophy of the whole book--that these girls expect to go through many difficult situations ("trials") like Christian in the book, and to persevere, and even to emerge victorious, in the next world if not in this one.  Like a lot of 19th century heroines, the March girls always had the idea of the next world to fall back on when things got too tough in this one.

Why do you need these things?  And why the King James, which was produced way back in 1612 and is filled with strange, archaic, and above all inaccurate language?  So that half the time you don't even know what the heck is going on, which you would know if the teacher would just tell you to read the New International Version (2011) to which there exist many handy links?  Like this one:

Now, just make sure you do get the regular old King James--not the "New" King James, which takes all the joy out of reading and lobs in new stuff that the folks whose books you are reading did not read.

For further details on why you should read the plain old 1612 King James, see this handy article:

You want accuracy, we got accuracy--that's the NIV, above.  You want poetry, the best in the English language, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, then you take the King James.  You take the original, not the "new" King James, however, for a far more pragmatic reason:  every single English and American writer worth their salt born anytime after 1612 read the King James.  They didn't read the "New" King James" or the Revised Standard or any other translation that wasn't around when they were alive.

Just to make it extra convenient for you, here is the dang thing online, and you even get to look at a facsimile of the original:

Why am I writing this?  Because the semester just started, and I went in to teach my university students, and I asked them what happened in the book of Exodus, and they did not know.  I asked them who Athena was, and they did not know.  I asked them who Aphrodite was, and they did not know.  I asked them who Hermes was, and they did not know.  I felt like one enduring the trials of Job, and one student actually did have some idea who he was.

Take up your cell phones and read, oh ye of little faith.  And lo, ye shall be saved from illiteracy


  1. Hello Critical Mom..... I found your website through a comment you left at City Journal re English politeness no more. A few questions for you: these students of yours, American or British? What is the standard of acceptance to university these days?

  2. Actually they are German--most German nationals, though we do have some students from other countries. They do speak English well and the majority are from a Western European country, where I would have assumed they'd get some exposure to the "Western tradition" in the form of influential texts like the King James Bible and the Greek and Roman--and the Norse! myths. But most have not! So I don't know what the general standard is--believe it depends more on fluency in English than on level of education. Thanks for writing to me!

  3. Love this post. I had really not known much about PP, though of course I had learned of it through Little Women. Now wonder whether my grandmother ever read it.

  4. Pilgrim's Progress is good readin'! There's a good children's edition . . . actually got it for my kids and am now waving it at my students . . . will color illustrations of Christian staggering along with his massive pack . . .

  5. Post Hoc: if you don't like handbooks to literature you can all just go out and read ALL of Rick Riordan! Ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, and ancient Egyptians--it is all there, and now's the time to buy and read his stuff on the beach.